In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When I graduated law school, my parents took my sister and me to England, the one place I had always wanted to visit. My mother worked for a travel agency, and we were on a bus tour of England and Scotland. We stopped at Oxford for a day, and Cambridge. We saw Stonehenge, and the moors where the Hound of the Baskervilles hunted.
One day, we visited Coventry, and pulled up in front of a very modern, frankly not all that impressive cathedral. As we piled off the bus, I wondered why we were even stopping there. As we went around, I saw why.
The outer walls of the old cathedral, a medieval masterpiece, had survived the bombing of the cathedral in November 1940, the height of the blitz. Nothing else had, mind you. The windows, gone, the roof, fallen in. Utter devastation. And not just the Cathedral.
That night, 568 people were killed; approximately 1200 people were injured, 863 of them seriously. Nearly 8,000 houses were either destroyed outright or required evacuation for repair.
The next day, Richard Howard, the Provost of the Cathedral, chalked on the wall of the ruined sanctuary the words “Father, Forgive.”
Later, when it was safe to inspect the still smoldering ruin, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, found two of the roofbeams, still linked, charred and twisted though they were, forming a cross. Forbes set the beams up behind an altar made from the rubble. Our tour guide told us that the first service said was for the souls of the German pilots, as well as for those killed in the air raid.
The altar read simply, “Father, Forgive.”
As I stood in the middle of that ruined cathedral, long after the others wandered into the shiny new one, I couldn’t take my eyes of that cross, off that inscription.
I couldn’t take my eyes off it because I had only recently read that in late 1940, the threat of invasion still loomed over England. And that, if a beachhead were established by that invasion, “all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern weald is indefensible against disciplined troops.”
With their cathedral and a large parts of the City destroyed, who could blame the people of Coventry if they wanted revenge? Or even if they just wanted safety, and the defeat of the invaders. But they forgave.
And this act of forgiveness was not done after the fact, from a position of safety. In fact, the people of Coventry forgave their attackers even when the forces of evil looked to be poised to triumph over them. The prayed for their attackers to be forgiven when it looked like the damage was not just incalculable, but irreparable. They forgave when it seemed that all was lost.
A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, Provost Howard of the Cathedral spoke over the radio from the ruins. He asked those who were listening “to banish all thoughts of revenge” and called on them to “make a kinder, simpler world—a more Christ-Child like world.”
We’re a long way from that kinder, simpler world Richard Howard prayed for on that Christmas Day here, this afternoon. Even though Lent started so early, this year, it feels further away from Christmas than I would have thought possible.
No, we’re here on Good Friday 2016. Just three days after a terror attack in Brussels on Tuesday claimed at least 30 lives.
And here we are, in the shadow of the Cross.
“Father, forgive them, for they know what they do.”
How hard it is to say those words with anything like conviction. It’s like that part of the Lord’s Prayer, when we ask God to forgive us for the hurts we inflict, just like we forgive the people who have hurt us. I don’t always say that part of the prayer with the intentionality it deserves.
But Jesus did. And Jesus does.
Maybe it’s because He knows us better than we know ourselves, and is able to understand how easy it is to fool ourselves into the worst betrayals, the worst crimes. After all, Peter has denied him out of fear, Judas has sold him for profit, the Temple authorities have betrayed him to the Romans, and the Romans—well, imagine the betrayal of finding in the occupier of your nation someone who gets it, knows that you’re not guilty, and then, as a matter of politics, sends you to death anyway.
And yet, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In my Catholic boyhood, I was taught to understand that line to mean that the whole cast of characters who betrayed Jesus that night and that day would have acted better if they knew he was the Messiah. And, yes, that’s one way to read it. But it's an easy way. One that lets us off the hook. One that doesn't require us to forgive.
So here’s another. Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan has a character in it, an English chaplain, who is delighted when Joan is captured. He argues against the Church authorities’ efforts to get her to confess and recant, and wants to see her tried and executed as a heretic.
And, after he gets his wish, and she’s sentenced to death, he goes to watch.
He comes back, a broken man, and says:
You don't know: you haven’t seen: it is so easy to talk when you don’t know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then--then--The chaplain can’t finish the sentence, the enormity of his own guilt is too much for him. He has realized what his own self-righteousness has helped bring about, and his heart is shattered at the pain he has caused.
He knows what he has done, all too late.
Like Peter, like Judas, perhaps even like Pilate. Like Paul in , when the scales fall from his eyes. Only afterwards do they understand the enormity of what they have done.
And not just because Jesus was the Messiah. Because they have, in betraying Jesus, betrayed what was best in them.
As we do, as I do, when we burn bright with self-righteousness at the terrible things that happen in our poor world, and give ourselves permission to hate whoever we think is responsible for them, to deny their humanity. As we do, as I do, when we feel that wonderful sense of justified anger, and give into it. As we do, as I do, when we accept an unjust status quo, and convince ourselves that there is nothing to be done. That so the world is, when in fact it is so we have made the world.
Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.